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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Maps, Newspapers, and Bridges

Some cities are fairly self-explanatory and getting around is easy. Most cities have streets set up on a grid system so all you have to do is take a quick look at a map to get oriented and that's that. Valencia isn’t one of those cities. Valencia is more like Amsterdam which is like a maze within a labyrinth defended by moats. Valencia is a confusing city to find your way around, with many boulevards running diagonally and many streets sometimes changing names in midstream. With lots of triangular blocks it probably helps to use trigonometry to find short cuts. During your first few days in cities like Valencia and Amsterdam, there is no getting around the fact that you are going to get lost a few times. You may even remain lost for your entire stay. You shouldn’t fight it, just try to enjoy yourself.

If you sit in a café in the old section of Valencia you will see throngs of tourists consulting maps in a desperate attempt to find their way around the maze of circular streets, dead ends, crooked walkways, and other man-made obstacles to navigation. If you sit long enough and take notice you will see people walking in circles—I know because I did the same thing during my first few weeks of living here. I have carried a compass on my key chain for many years and that helped me a lot more than the maps that are available everywhere. A compass is also easier to read and not as obvious as unfolding a map in the middle of the sidewalk.

I always feel a little self-conscious carrying a map around because I hate looking too much like a tourist. I would say the same about fanny packs and money belts. You can spot these kind of tourists from satellite photos. I think that it is a natural human tendency to want to belong somewhere, to feel comfortable, and to be at home wherever you may be. It is hard to feel comfortable when you are carrying a map with you. Of course, I needed a map just like all of the other tourists but I would only consult mine furtively, under a café table or behind a dumpster. I was going to live here and I didn’t want to look like another lost tourist, even if I was lost.

I gradually learned my way around the old quarter. I still consult a map occasionally, especially when I think that I know my way around a certain area but suspect that there is probably a quicker, more direct way of getting there than the way I have staked out. I am almost always correct in my suspicions. I often saved myself several blocks by consulting the map and looking at the big picture. Sometimes I found things on the map that were only a half block from places that I walked past every day. More often than not, I just found things by complete accident.

Even after I knew my way around town fairly well, I was still lost culturally and linguistically. It’s not like Spain is such a strange and foreign place, but they certainly do have their own way of doing almost everything, and I had to learn all of these from scratch. When I first arrived my Spanish wasn’t nearly good enough to understand much of what was on the television, I also didn’t know anyone here. This meant that I had to rely almost entirely on newspapers and books to learn about Valencia and Spain.

Newspapers were my map to the cultural and political side to life in Spain. It’s where I learned the ins and outs of the Spanish football league, the broad strokes of local and national politics, and just about everything else you need to know to be able to participate in the society around you. Where I felt self-conscious about looking at a map, I felt like reading a newspaper and carrying one under my arm made me stick out less. As much as people claim to be their own person and to be nonconformists, most people really just want to fit in. I desperately wanted to fit in and nothing made me feel more at home than when I would be asked directions by a Spaniard and I was actually able to steer them in the right direction.

During my first month I was entirely confounded by the Spanish holidays. Between the national and locals holidays, there didn’t seem to be too many days left over to actually get anything done. I would be out trying to do a bit of shopping only to be caught off guard by a holiday and find everything closed for the day. It reminded me of a time a few years ago when I went out to eat at a Chinese restaurant in Seattle’s International District. All of the restaurant employees and most of the Chinese customers were carrying on as if this were just any other day of the year; and to them, people of a non-Christian heritage, it was just like any other day. My friends and I joked that no one had sent these people the memo that today was Christmas. Now I know exactly how they must feel. I usually wouldn’t learn what the holiday was until I read about it in the newspaper the next day. No one had sent me the email.

When I first arrived I was particularly bewildered by the holidays in December that seemed to last for days and days. I was lost and I couldn’t seem to find my bearings until I read a wonderful essay by Elvira Lindo in a Sunday edition of the Madrid newspaper, El País, that answered many of my questions about the holidays and matters relating to the Spanish attitude towards work and taking vacations.

The author lives in New York and the subject of her essay was the temporary inhabitants of her sleeper-sofa, Spaniards who had cobbled together a week’s vacation out of a couple of days off for holidays. They call it a “bridge” when a long weekend is built around a weekday holiday. Sometimes the bridge is a fairly solid affair, like when people take off the Monday before a holiday on a Tuesday to make a four day weekend. Sometimes the bridges can be as rickety and perilous (as least as far as some employers are concerned) as anything you might see in an Indiana Jones movie, like when people take the whole week off when the holiday falls on a Wednesday. To translate a “bridge” like this with the phrase “take a long weekend” hardly does it justice.

It turned out that the week I was wondering about contained the two holidays of Constitution Day and The Immaculate Conception. The author pointed out that even her fellow countrymen who believe in neither, and can agree on almost nothing, are of the same mind when it comes to “bridges.” Elvira joked that a Spaniard doesn’t emigrate, he goes on a bridge. Spanish people always find it amazing that we don't have a word in English for their concept of a vacation bridge.

I felt like I had been let in on a secret. Having the concept of bridges explained to me was the first insider thing that I remember learning in Spain. It seemed like I saw things a little clearer after that, like after you look at a map of where you are going and you say to yourself, “Oh yeah, now I get it.” A map or a newspaper can save you a lot of head scratching, a lot of time stumbling around lost, and they can also open places and things that would have taken you a lot longer to discover through experience. When you are in the middle of deciphering a new culture, there are going to be a lot of eureka moments—sometimes dozens in single day, if you are lucky. You have to look in as many places as possible for guidance.

I finally got to the point where I didn’t need a map, at least not very often. My compass went back to being just a decoration on my key chain. My dictionary will always get a lot of use and I still write down in a little notebook every word that I look up. I did the same thing back in college with English words whose meanings I didn’t know at the time. I remember years later coming across those words that I had written down on index cards. As I shuffled through the deck, I found it amusing to think that there was a time when all of those words were foreign to me but had moved on to become part of my everyday vocabulary. I couldn’t help but look a little condescendingly upon my former, less articulate self.

I remember back then how pleased I would be with myself when I came across a word that I had looked up. I feel the same way now every time that I read almost anything because I recently looked up just about every word that I know in Spanish. Instead of looking up words that I might find on a graduate school entrance exam, my new vocabulary lists are now more about survival. You can usually tell the contents by the container but it’s still a good idea to know the words for “bleach” and “mouthwash.” And I do know the words for shampoo and cream rinse, but the bottles look exactly the same which is why I washed my hair with cream rinse for five straight days. Man was my hair ever soft. For many of the things that I have had to learn here I didn’t have the benefit of a map, or a dictionary, or a guide book. I just had to learn them through trial and error and imitating people around me.

It’s like my entire life is now about building a bridge between the place where I lived most of my life and this new place. It can be frustrating, entertaining, and hilarious at times, but always interesting. I still consider myself to be a young man, but I don’t think I have enough years left in this lifetime to ever get to know the language and culture of Spain the way I think that I know my own. As long as I’m here I’ll keep working at it. I think that it gets easier as you go along, although I haven’t found it to be any easier just yet—not that I’m complaining.

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